Christian Benteke: A Statistical Profile

Michael Regan

With the Christian Benteke chase dominating headlines, I want to take a look at the underlying stats of the Belgian striker's breakout season with Aston Villa.

I haven't written very much about individual player statistics here, and for a simple reason. Player statistics are hard.

In baseball, there are a set of individual statistics that, when summed up, correlate quite well with team quality, with runs and runs allowed and wins. In football, there is basically no such thing as a player value stat. (Team level stats are different, and I think they are quite meaningful.) So at the outset, I want to be clear that I am not precisely advocating for or against the acquisition of Christian Benteke in this article. A consideration of his projected value should be undertaken primarily using subjective tools. Our objective tools for measuring player value are really quite weak.

However, I think the statistics can be useful for developing a profile of the player. In particular, there have been a number of arguments made against the acquisition of Benteke which have been based on the type of player that he is. He's just a poacher, it's been argued. And he's not clinical, he's not a finisher. These are claims that can be tested against the stats ,and I don't think they hold up.

Finishing

Finishing is the easy one. Benteke, I think, started to be perceived as a poor finisher because of some notable misses while playing for Belgium in international competitions. This mostly serves as evidence that strike rate, shot on target conversion and such, are extremely variable stats and should not be taken as good evidence of player skill over a small sample.

Last year, by the numbers, Christian Benteke was one of the Premier League's most clinical finishers. On 38 shots on target (excluding penalties), Benteke scored 16 goals. He also converted all three penalties he took. That's a 42% conversion rate on non-penalty shots on target. Among 65 players in the league with at least 15 shots on target, Benteke's conversion rate was sixth best. Here's the top ten:

Player SoT G Conv%
Lukas Podolski 19 11 58%
Gabriel Agbonlahor 17 9 53%
Juan Mata 25 12 48%
Michu 38 18 47%
Adam Le Fondre 20 9 45%
Christian Benteke 38 16 42%
Grant Holt 17 7 41%
Frank Lampard 25 10 40%
Shane Long 20 8 40%
Steven Fletcher 29 11 38%

As you can tell, this is not exactly a who's who of the best strikers in the league. Benteke's presence on this list probably reflects more good fortune than great skill. It's also not a function of Benteke taking more shots inside the box—of his 38 shots on target, 30 were from inside the box and 8 from outside. Baed on league average rates, that would project a conversion rate around 30%, just a couple percentage points better than league average.

Benteke was also better than average at converting "big chances" as classified by Opta. Here's another top ten, of players with at least 10 big chances (there were 40 players in the league with at least 10 BC):

Player BC BC G Conv%
Frank Lampard 12 8 67%
Gabriel Agbonlahor 10 6 60%
Dimitar Berbatov 17 10 59%
Gareth Bale 12 7 58%
Rickie Lambert 16 9 56%
Luis Suarez 30 16 53%
Christian Benteke 24 12 50%
Wayne Rooney 16 8 50%
Theo Walcott 16 8 50%
Peter Crouch 10 5 50%

This looks like a slightly better marker of skill, though Robin Van Persie comes around league average at 40% and Sergio Aguero down at 33%. Still, I think this is a good list to find yourself on.

Overall, I draw two conclusions from this data. (1) It is obviously not the case that Christian Benteke was a poor finisher last year for Aston Villa. It looks much more likely that he's a relatively clinical striker than that he is wasteful up top. (2) It is probable that Christian Benteke's goals scored total flatters him a little bit. You'd probably expect more like 14-16 goals with his underlying stats, rather than 19.

Involvement

This one is harder. With finishing, we have clearly applicable data. With Benteke's involvement in the squad, I want to look at a couple indicators. None of them are perfect, but if they agree overall, I think we can draw some conclusions.

I'm going to look at three statistics. Chances created, passes in the final third, and passes forward. A player who is a pure poacher should be low in all three, a player who is a heavily involved forward playmaker type should be highly ranked in all three. (As has been variously pointed out, perhaps most clearly by Graham MacAree at WAGNH, "chances created" is a poorly named statistic that sounds much more impressive than it is. It just means that you made the last pass before a shot attempt. It includes perfectly-weighted through balls, corner kicks, and being the guy who happened to the pass the ball to a guy who took an ill-advised shot from thirty-five yards. So I don't want to oversell it as a value stat. But I think the more passes you make that lead to shots, the more likely it is you were highly involved in your club's attack as a creative player. So it's at least weakly indicative.)

For a comparison set, I'm going to look at Benteke and his Aston Villa teammates, and I'm going to look at players on the thirteen bottom-table clubs. If your club has lots of possession and creates lots of chances, your striker will always been more heavily involved, creating chances and passing in the final third. So for a fair comparison set, Benteke should be looked at in comparison to other players whose clubs didn't produce tons of possession and attacking chances.

First, I have 21 forwards on the bottom 13 clubs with at least 1500 minutes. Among them, Benteke is third in chances created, behind only Rickie Lambert and Bryan Ruiz, both of whom played more explcitly withdrawn and playmaking roles. Fourth and fifth are Romelu Lukaku and Andy Carroll. Benteke is third in passes in the final third, behind Rickie Lambert and now Dimitar Berbatov, leading Lukaku and Arouna Kone. Benteke stands 8th of 21 in passes forward, a much more average number.

Among Aston Villa players, Benteke's numbers suggest strongly that the attack ran through him. Among Villa players with 1500 or more minutes played, only Barry Bannan has more chances created per 90 minutes. Notably, Benteke's strike partners Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor have very few chances created. Benteke has 1.6 CC/90, while Weimann and Agbonlahor are both at 0.9 CC/90. It seems that Benteke was setting up his wide forwards much more than they were creating for him.

You can see similar numbers with passes in the final third. Benteke completed 10.2 passes in the final third per 90 minutes, ahead of Agbonlahor at 9.2, Weimann at 8.6 and Fabian Delph at 8.4. With passes forward, you'd expected Benteke to have fewer because he generally played the most advanced role, but he's still competitive with Weimann and Agbonlahor. Gabby leads with 6.0 PF/90 Min, Benteke is at 5.9 and Weimann at 4.8.

You can see similarly suggestive effects in his heat maps—visual depictions of where the player picked up the ball on the pitch. As Edward pointed out in the comments, Benteke's heat maps in games against West Ham, Reading and Sunderland all show him spending quite a bit of time in withdrawn and wide positions. Again, none of this is definitive evidence, but the stats all point in the same direction.

A Tentative Conclusion

Christian Benteke's statistics fit with a profile of a highly-involved, hard-working forward who spends much of his time creating for his teammates. They are not the expected numbers of a goal-line poacher. His finishing numbers likewise are not definitive, but they fit much better with the profile of a relatively clinical striker rather than a wasteful one.

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